Preuss School/UCSD - Not the Charter You Might Think

I was in San Diego recently and took the opportunity to visit a charter school.  I may have my own opinions on charter schools but it is always valuable to keep gathering information and insights.

Preuss/UCSD, a 6-12 school, sits on the campus of the University of California, San Diego.  Their building is on land donated by the University and they built their buildings with about $14M in donations.  (Note to BEX; we do NOT have to spend mega-dollars for decent buildings.  This one was fairly stark and did not have many amenities but if they can build a 6-12 school for 800 students for $14M, it would seem we could build a full-out high school for $50M and not $90-100M.)

In June 2011, Newsweek magazine named Preuss as the nation's top transformative school in the country.

From their Fact Sheet page:

The Preuss School is a middle and high school dedicated to providing an intensive college prep education for motivated low-income students who will become the first in their families to graduate from college. If these goals are realized, the school will matriculate students who are competitively eligible to enter the University of California or other selective institutions of higher education. The Preuss School, which is jointly chartered by the San Diego Unified School District and the University of California, San Diego, opened in 1999 with 150 students in grades 6 ~ 8.  Currently, there are 833 students in grades 6 ~ 12.

Preuss has an expanded school year (198 versus 175 days) and expanded school day (7 hours versus 6 hours).  They have a smaller class size in all grades (and for San Diego this means Preuss has 30 students per class versus the average of 34 per class).

The Preuss School students are culturally diverse with 67% Hispanic, 11% African American, 19% Asian/Indo-Chinese and 3% Caucasian/Other.

Preuss students are selected through an admissions process of application and lottery. To be eligible for the lottery, a student must meet three criteria:
  1. All families must meet the income eligibility criteria as defined by Federal guidelines.
  2. The parents or chief guardians are not graduates of a four year college or university.
  3. Student must demonstrate high motivation and potential to attend an academically competitive university or college.
I have looked at the application and it is pretty daunting at 23 pages.

I had made an appointment to see the vice-principal, Pete Selleck.   He could not have been more helpful and welcoming.  But he was pretty frank about the school and that was key to our visit.

My impressions:

I asked him about being a charter school and what teachers/staff it attracts.  He told me that virtually no one was working at the school because it was a charter school.  He said most of the teachers wanted to make a difference in these students' lives and picked the school for the students and not how it is operated.  He had worked in both kinds of public schools and said he had no preference for either.  At no time did he say that Preuss works better because it is a charter.  It is very much about how the school has chosen to operate.

We talked and toured the school.  The students wear uniforms and so the look is clean and neat.  I was introduced to a couple of students who were very polite and well-spoken.  The senior I spoke with said it had been a long haul but worth it.

What he was talking about is that UCSD is in La Jolla which is a wealthy area of San Diego.  Naturally, virtually none of their students come from La Jolla.  Preuss buses in students from all areas of Greater San Diego.  Many of these students are facing 6 years of 2+hours a day on a bus to go to Preuss.  It is an investment in time that inpacts their family life, social life and other activities.

Mr. Selleck was clear on their challenges that would come as no surprise to anyone who works with high-need students.  He said they had the four Ds; death, divorce, drugs and disease.  He said many of the families of his students had these struggles.

Mr. Selleck was a little vague on how many applications they receive but they do always have to go to a lottery.  Your sib will not get in just because you are in.  He also did not mention the attrition rate but I think the lengthy application process probably weeds out many families who realize, at that point, what a commitment it is to go to this school.

Preuss has one-track - college prep.  They have many AP classes and my notes reflect a requirement to take AP but not how many classes.  Every class is either "honors" or AP.  The culture is one of "here's what we are working towards to get you into college."  They have weekly PD for teachers and Mr. Selleck said it was about working collaboratively and fine-tuning their work as they get feedback from student outcomes.  Their curriculum is specifically designed to meet and/or exceed the University of California's admission requirements.  They have academic supports for struggling students.  There are 15 hours a year mandatory parent involvement.

I asked him about parent involvement and didn't get a good answer.  I suspect because of both the distance and having a student who would be the first member of the family to attend a 4-year college/university, that not a lot of parents have a major impact on the school.

This fits the model of many charter schools - parents have to embrace what is set before them and their role is largely of support.

He also was clear on their main challenge which comes as no surprise to anyone with a child in public school; money.

One of their biggest costs is transportation.  They provide free transportation to all their students and, as I mentioned before, the students come from great distances.  They initially had $1M coming from UCSD to support transportation but with the recession, that went away.  They struggle to figure out how to keep the transportation going.

Another issue is class size.  They want to keep it down but they also want to help as many students as possible.

I was glad I visited the school.  I will say I did not see anything particularly innovative going on in the classrooms I visited.  What I did see were students on task, working quietly even in groups.  I saw teachers who kept a watchful eye over the class, making sure everyone was working.

From both reading about charters and the couple of charter schools I have visited, I feel I see two things about charters that make them different and it's not about innovation.

One, I see staffs - entire staffs - who work together towards a common goal.  Not just, "all kids achieving" - but a real and specific goal.  What's interesting is that way back when the Gates Foundation was founding Transformation plans that would support such goals but they didn't like what SPS was doing and pulled the money.  The goal cannot just be a motto or a "We Believe" page at a website; it has to be something enacted every single day.

Two, I see discipline.  This is a tired whine of mine but I firmly believe in setting behavior expectations and expecting students to follow them.  If you give a child the opportunity to hear what is expected and tolerated, then there is no confusion later on when you call them on unacceptable behavior.  This is done not to embarrass the student but to set the tone for the class and the school and allow other students to be able to learn without disruption.

Charter schools are able to do this in spades because parents who do not work with the school in making sure their students follow those expectations will be told their student will be exited from a school.   Charter schools can easily tell parents, sorry, that's our charter and if you don't like it, there's the door (politely, of course).   I think this is part of KIPP high standards (and high attrition rate).  They simply will not put up with behavior that disrupts learning.

For whatever reason, traditional schools either don't have the ability to enforce discipline or find that administration will not back them up.  The behavior standards vary from class to class and school to school and I don't think it works.

I don't believe in any school being completely hard-nosed on behavior but when you allow loud behavior at inappropriate times or staff turns away from bullying issues or dress-code issues, it just becomes a slippery slope.  And anyone who has a child, especially middle school and up, knows that kids will just continue to push that envelope to the edge.

I enjoyed my visit to Preuss and have to give the school and Mr. Selleck a big shout-out for making me feel welcome.


Anonymous said…
Preuss might be great and have an earnest faculty, but the fact remains: It skims the "best of the hardest to educate." A 23-page admissions form weeds out ELL kids. Takes out foster kids. Takes out kids from illiterate or self-consumed parents. Intimates that special needs kids won't be welcome.

That's public money going to a facility that doesn't take the hardest to educate. I use the words unethical and immoral on that practice, even if the law allows them to slide by. (And I'd love to see a lawsuit change the law in CA.)

caroline said…
Preuss had a big cheating scandal a few years ago.

Also, @Savvy voter is correct. A 23-page admission form weeds out all but the most motivated. Also, Preuss can do what it wants with its supposed "lottery"; there is no oversight whatsoever of charter school admissions processes.

Here in San Francisco, our most successful and well-regarded charter school (a high school) has a 13-page enrollment application requiring multiple essay answers from the parent, as well as requiring an essay from the student, teacher recs and more. Last year, my limited-English-speaking housecleaner heard it was good and decided to apply for her daughter, so she wrote the school's name on her daughter's school district enrollment app -- which does no good at all since it's a separate process. That would have been the end of it if she hadn't mentioned it to some of her clients.

That's when I looked at the application and the multiple essay responses it required. I offered to help her with it. I also started a discussion about this on a local district parents' listserve. Immediately, the enrollment person from the charter school called me and offered to waive the entire application and just get the basic information to enter the family into the lottery. But by then, the mom had decided that this wasn't the school for her family.

So you see how this works.

The school district knows that this charter isn't supposed to impose these hurdles that screen for motivated students from motivated, supportive, educated and informed families. A couple of school board members voiced distress when this was discussed on the parent listserve. But the school board will take SO MUCH CRAP if they trouble or bother this popular charter school -- our school board has been badly burned by trying to oversee even disastrously failing charters before, so needless to say, they're not looking for more of that.
Anonymous said…
Caroline, could you not help your housecleaner first without going on the listserve? I am not for charter, but I do think if this is a good school and offers an opportunity for your housecleaner's children, why not help them apply. Afterall, the schools is still there and other people who don't have hurdles like a language barrier and are well versed in essay applications will already have a headstart in the process. You can still hang on to your principal for personal reason, but do the right thing for others.

Not a charter fan, but don't like to waste an opportunity
dan dempsey said…
Check it out and contrast and compare ....

Preuss has an expanded school year (198 versus 175 days) and expanded school day (7 hours versus 6 hours).

Article IX WA Constitution ....
It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.

Preuss provides about the amount of time in school as the OECD average (European countries and their partners average 195 days).

So what is "ample provision for the education of all children"?

The WA courts apparently found that WA State cannot even fund 180 days of 6 hour school days. (but that is OK to continue for the next six-years)

Meanwhile the legislature and the Guv are passing bills to improve the Ed situation based on complete baloney ..... Evaluations with Value Added Measures (test results) = completely unproven and recently publicly debunked.

Pushing Charters but not pushing the funding needed to get the results achieved by Top performing charters ... and what about all students?

OSPI, WEA, SEA, legislators are all in on the Common Core State Standards scam .... and lets add in several of the Race to the Top agenda items.

Evidence based decision-making .... does not happen when it comes to school ..... It is now all politics and no evidence that drives Ed decisions..... and the WA Supreme Court is a willing accomplice in the violation of the constitutional rights of 1 million Washington k-12 students.
Scrawny Kayaker said…
At risk of censure for spamming, I'm repeating my post from this morning on the open thread since it seems more relevant here:

Just heard a short bit on NPR's Morning Edition about school testing, which was actually mainly about a specific charter school. Paraphrase of parental quote: We were attracted to this charter school because they only spend a two week period on test prep, not letting it railroad the entire year's plan.

NOT mentioned: Does the charter school face the same immediate sanctions as a regular public school if their test results are not up to snuff, and are they in the same place in the NCLB/RTTT death-ratchet system or state laws? (I don't know the answer, so if someone could Google that for me...thanks!)

If the answer to both those questions are "yes" then it's not *crucial* to mention that for fairness, but it's a sufficiently important issue that they surely could have found time to squeeze in a clause like "even though the school faces the same high stakes for test results as public schools."

If the answers are "no," then this piece is a biased hatchet job that leaves unstated the fact that public schools that fail in the impossible demand to constantly ratchet upward in standardized test scores will be shut down and be replaced by charters, which won't be under the same pressure. In practice, most of those charters can be expected to be run not by parents or genuine community groups but by the same Ed Reformers and astroturfers (Gates, TFA, LEV, etc) currently driving the Democratic party to the right on education issues.

Of course, even if charters have the same test consequences, they may have less worry about test results due to cherry-picking or self-selection by more motivated students. That's always a powerful advantage for charter schools.

Looks like another example of Nice Polite Republican's center-right radio programming. Consider switching to KBCS and Democracy Now for your public radio programming if you agree that NPR is too much a captive of the corporatists.
Anonymous said…
The first post by "Savy Voter" states that Preuss skims the best of the hardest to educate with a 23 page admission form. Even if that is true, don't those kids deserve a high quality education and a chance to go to college? Have you looked around the inner-cities of this country ever? I am not pro-charter myself. I am pro-justice. If a school is putting low-income kids of color in college at the rate this blog states, then I am all for it whether it is public, private, charter, parochial, on line, or any other configuration. Some might argue that taking "the best of the hardest to educate" out of the traditional system only exacerbates the inequities. They say those kids are the models other kids need to set the bar higher. Trust me, there are plenty of kids with potential to excel left in the inner-cities of our country. In fact the overwhelming majority of kids have the potential to excel. They only need more of us to believe in them, hold high expectations for them, and to support our educators with the resources needed to do the job well. Savvy voters everywhere should support candidates who understand this. I hesitate to call anyone immoral who disagrees with me, but isn't this an issue of morality? Don't we have a responsibility to educate all kids well regardless of family income, skin color, religion etc.? We have the means as a society to do it. I stated I am not pro-charter. That is because of how the charter concept is being applied in so many instances, but I would hate to take that tool away from people who truly are dedicated to social justice and educational equity like the educators described in this blog.

Anonymous said…
This school educates people who pay very little or no taxes at the expense of hard working tax payers whose kids can't even afford to pay for their own kids to go to a decent college. This seems like another tax payer subsidized program for poor Hispanics.67% Hispanic? That is not diversity. That's welfare! Can't put my own kid through college but I sure can put some poor kids through school. Who is going to help the kids of middle class parents while we're busy paying the way for poor kids. I'm not racist just a middle class African American parent who works dam hard and can't get a break. I went to college so my kid can't attend Preuss.
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